Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Economy of Force

"The defeats of Xerxes, Darius, Mithridates and other monarchs who brought innumerable multitudes into the field, plainly show that the destruction of such prodigious armies is owing more to their own numbers than to the bravery of their enemies. An army too numerous is subject to many dangers and inconveniences."

from The Military Institutions of the Romans (De Re Militari)
By Flavius Vegetius Renatus Translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John ClarkeV
Bluebear Jeff has asked my thoughts on the optimum number of units to deploy in a wargame.  This has been on mind as I try to determine what size units to organize in some of the armies that I'm building. Since the table will be filled, the larger the units the fewer the number of units and vice versa.

There is of course no definitive, universal answer to the question  and special circumstances often apply but we are talking in general terms of an average game. One might think that the answer can be found  by looking at historical orders of battle, but really, that only changes the question to "What level of organization should my basic units reflect?, Squads? Platoons? Battalions? Brigades? Divisions?". Management theory about span of control and so forth can provide some guidance but there are military and game factors as well.  

Based more upon my years of experience than any theory, I think that there is a good case to be made for an average of 12 units a side for ordinary games.  Since one often needs unbalanced forces, let me expand that to say between 6 and 18 units per side. Oddly enough, this matches the typical force levels in C.S. Grant's table Top Teasers and Scenarios as well as DBA's 12 element armies amongst other things.  

There are a couple of factors I like to keep in mind:

  • Force Mix. This is more of an issue for some periods/armies than others but most (not all ) armies, from ancient Egyptians up to today, usually contained a majority of infantry units of various types,  supported by artillery or other missile/support troops and cavalry/armour both heavy and light. Six units won't allow a natural mix of all unit types but is just barely enough to allow for a balanced force of 2 or 3 types.
  • Deployment & Tactics. If you check back with Vegetius, one of my earliest (in every sense) tutors on tactics, he suggests various battle formations for an army to adopt. They all begin with a Left, a Center, a Right and a Reserve and usually end with weighting one or more parts of the formation. Units shouldn't really be left without supports if it can be avoided so if you allocate say, 2 units,  to each sector and then weight one of them, you really need about 9 or 10 units, 12 would be better but 6 will do in a pinch. Any less and your deployment and tactical options are severely limited.
  • Longevity and Options. Simply put, the fewer units you have, the easier it is to lose them all and the fewer choices you can make each turn. For me, making choices is a key part of the fun of wargames, as is the ability to take some lumps, haul yourself together and try again.
  • Drag and Drudgery. This is the flip side. Decisions take time. If players have to make too many decisions the game will inevitably drag. Many units usually also mean many combat resolutions and many tests of one sort or another. How many is too many depends on the complexity of the rules, how well the players know them, the complexity of the scenario, whether or not units can be grouped, how much time and energy is available and what the players enjoy.  My suggestion of 18 units is based on a wide variety of games over the years but I am comfortable adjusting it upwards for very simple games (rules or scenario) especially if the units can be grouped or if a longer more involved game than normal is involved.
  • Storylines. One issue Jeff brought up is the ability to remember who is who and what they did so you can relive or share the battle afterwards. I recently bumped into this with my ACW plans when I realized that I was proposing to field 36 or more regiments a side when I couldn't even remember names and numbers for 12! Given my gaming preferences I would be better off either reorganizing to focus on brigades or fighting smaller battles with larger units if I want more troops on the table.
  • Multi-player & Solo. These change things a little but I would suggest that the minimum for a multi-player game becomes 3 to 12 units per player.  For Solo games, I wouldn't change anything  as an average of 12 per side is still best for giving each army options. 
So nothing definitive, just my 2 cents. I guess my other 2 questions will have to wait! 



  1. Ross,
    As always, sir, it is a pleasure to watch your mind in action.
    Plus, it saves wear and tear on mine. ;oP```


    1. John, The words of the Bard rise to mind "full of sound & fury, signifying nothing".


  2. My mind is not so much "in action" as idling. ha

    I'm thinking for something like a solo Colonial campaign having a small number of named units and/or figures on the "player's" side fighting against/through a larger number of enemy units and/or figures, with me as the "player" and the enemy driven by various solo mechanisms is one good way to go. There are ways one could determine winning in the more traditional sense of beating an opponent, such as by counting up survivors, various victory conditions like achieving pre-defined objectives (or objectives that arise in the course of games, like rescuing prisoners captured in a previous battle or encounter).
    (see, "idling")

    1. Having looked back over various solo games, it strikes me that I have found Colonials or at least non-symmetrical games involving either ambushes or fixed points of defense (such as Rorke's Drift or a bridge)seem to be the easiest for me to translate into a solo game with victory conditions for the "active" player. The active player could be either side.

  3. I currently have 6 infantry battalions and 6 cavalry regiments (3 heavy and 3 dragoons) plus assorted artillery for both Saxe-Bearstein and Stagonia.

    It looks like I'll have to build a couple more battalions each in order to run a lot of the Grant teasers. I can get the "light infantry" units by converging grenadiers.

    But I wonder if 8 battalions will be too many to maintain the "character" of each unit.

    I want my units (on each side) to each have its own history, character, enemies, etc. . . . and I'm not sure that I can maintain that with so many units.

    -- Jeff

  4. Jeff, there are only a few scenarios that call for 8 battalions and it is usually the over all balance which is important so one can compensate by substituting cavalry or using a Guard battalion on the side with an advantage, or by dropping part or all of a unit from the other side.

    I'm wondering if I'll ever have the discipline to maintain a campaign diary with notes in each unit. At least the blog battle reports maintain some sort of record that I can check back on.

  5. Jeff, you could always raise a few "second battalions" who's occasional exploits when required are a footnote in the regimental history.

    1. Right, or some mercenary units or short service/militia units which won;t have a long history in the army.

  6. Whenever these sorts of discussions come up I like to point to two items.

    1) in a chess game you have 18 of your own pieces and 18 of your opponents to keep in your mind. That is 32 discreet military objects to keep mental track of. Half of each force is very slow and of limited field operational ability, the pawns, the other half have different capabilities and could range across the whole field, the officers: Queen, Bishop, Rook & Knight. One piece is of vital, VICTORY, importance: the King. This then gives a suggestion for most enjoyable tactical games.

    If you are wanting a fast-paced game go with no more than 8 mobile units, that can range across the whole field. An example of this might be a WWI or WWII air battle game. or a Cavalry skirmish battle in the age of horse & musket. Limited number of units all with fast moving capacity, possibly with varied combat ability (like guard or armor).

    If you are seeking a more balanced approach game then go with the 18 units, only make sure that at least half of them are of limited movement and or firepower (the pawn equivalent). For most games simulating historical combat these are the foot troops, infantry, musketeers and the like.

    2) from my personal history as a light infantry officer and commander of a recce platoon: in most command situations the OIC (officer in charge) is not often dealing with any more than 5 or 6 subordinates and 1 or 2 superiors. This means that each level of command is not often dealing with more than 8 discreet issues.

    OIC Subordinates Superiors
    Section Commander 5-8 soldiers Platoon Warrant Officer & Platoon CO
    Platoon Commander 3 Section CO's Company CO and DCO
    1 Heavy Weapons Section
    1 Platoon Warrant
    Company Commander 3 or 4 Platoon CO's Battalion CO and DCO
    Company DCO
    1 or 2 Heavy Weapons Attachments
    1 or 2 Transport Platoons
    Battlion Commander 3-6 Company Commanders Division CO and DCO
    Battalion DCO
    1 or 2 Artillery Attachments
    Admin Company Commander

    And so on up the line ... most often a single 'commander' is not having to take on more than 8 subordinates until you reach the Corps level of command, even then most often there are subordinate level officers that take on the lead function for a portion of the command.

    In the Army level, the situation becomes more fluid, even still most effective commanders make use of their subordinates to reduce the number of voices at any "O" group to 8 or less.

    1. the 2) in that note was supposed to come out like a table, sorry for the confusion

    2. and then there is the standard chess layout with 8 pawns and 8 other pieces....... but you're right it fits within the parameters as does American Checkers which has 12 pieces.

      The military levels of comamnd resemble most business organizations as well, not a surprise since they are both hierarchical and share much history & research. I did a count of brigades in a corps in various Napoloenic & ACW armies and that comes out with the range as well though divisions would be at the bottom end and battalions way over the top.

    3. whoops, yes thinking '18' too much in the conversation, 16 (8+8) pieces for 32 to keep track of for both sides in a chess match.

      A corps commander would not always know every battalion under his command, certainly they might read about them or see them in a review, possibly talking with the battalion commander from time to time. Direct orders would not normally be given from Corps direct to battalion, they normally would flow from Corps to Division to Brigade - though on occasion from Corps to brigade. Certainly the 'Peninsular Army' of Wellesley cannot be used as the most common case.

      More accurate would be the French, Austrian or Russian systems (though the Russian one does have its own set of complications with "Inspections" that are a hybrid of Brigades or Divisions and were an early attempt to break up the almost medieval army structure that had been in use from before the 7 years war).

      In the end, what is 'playable' is what will matter most.

      For a skirmish game, where each piece is one man, you can actually go much higher than the 18, as I have had more fun in Sword and Flame or Star Wars Minis Battles where there are 3-8 'units' with 5-20 men in each 'unit' making for 15 to 160 pieces to keep some track of. Again the 'unit' count is in the range here not the total number of models in the game.

      Likewise for a recent Garden Wars game I did with my sons, we each had 8-10 divisions, each with 2-3 Battalions, with 8-12 minis per Battalion & squadron plus artillery.

      My 6 year old was able to keep up with what was going on during the game, so I cannot see why anyone else could not learn it.

  7. There are at least a couple of issues - 1. number of individual figures, stands pieces and number of units. 2. number of units that can be managed and number of units with which one can identify and keep track of over time.
    Number of pieces, I would think, mostly affect how much time and space a game takes - more pieces to move takes longer, more pieces of the same size take up more space
    Number of units one person/player can manage, I'm not sure, but my own preference is fewer is better for the kinds of quick games I'm looking for at this point.
    Number of units one person can identify with and keep track of in their head (sure, you can do it on paper, too, but then for me at least I have to keep looking things up in my paperwork) - for me, it's not a lot. I think you could expand a bit over time as some of the early units become established in your mind. For me, this is also where being a solo player is a bigger part of the equation. As a solo player trying to keep track of, oh, maybe 6 units seems like a reasonable starting point (total for both sides), maybe 8 (who knows, maybe even 10 or 12). But whatever the number, I'm guessing it's less than the number of units I can manage. This is not a scientific calculation, just my impression from my own experiences. Other people with better memories might be able to keep more units in mind, as sort of "main characters" in our stories/games.
    (yeah, more brain idling)